BRUSSELS (AP) - Shocked into action by Japan's atomic crisis, European energy officials agreed Tuesday to apply stress tests on nuclear power plants and Germany moved to switch off seven aging reactors - one of them permanently.
The European Union's energy chief called for a reassessment of the 27-nation bloc's energy policy, and questioned what role nuclear power should have in the future.
"We have to ask ourselves: Can we in Europe, within time, secure our energy needs without nuclear power plants?" EU Energy Commissioner Oettinger told German ARD television.
Energy ministers, nuclear regulators and industry officials meeting in Brussels found "general agreement" on the need for tough tests to check whether the European Union's 143 nuclear reactors could withstand earthquakes and other emergencies, Oettinger said.
The stress tests will be devised using the "strictest" nuclear standards in the bloc and be applied in second half of the year, he said, adding that plants that fail the tests would have to shut down.
"The authority of the test must be so high, that those responsible will have to live by the consequences," Oettinger said.
He invited non-EU nations including Russia and Switzerland to join the initiative.
Earlier Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that seven reactors that went into operation before 1980 would be offline for three months while Europe's biggest economy reconsiders its plans to extend the life of its atomic power plants.
One of them, the Neckarwestheim I reactor, would remain shut down for good. Residents said living in the shadow of the 35-year-old nuclear plant is making them increasingly nervous in the wake of the events in Japan.
"It must be switched off," 32-year-old Anja Pfau told AP Television News as she pushed her 5-month-old boy along the street in a pram. "There are enough alternative energies like water power and solar energy."
A previous government decided a decade ago to shut all 17 German nuclear reactors by 2021, but Merkel's administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years. That decision was suspended for three months.
Energy policies in the EU are still driven independently by member nations and vary hugely. For example, France gets about 84 percent of its energy from nuclear power, while Poland relies mostly on coal and solid fuels.
Though earthquakes are rare in Germany and tend to be weak, Merkel said effects of the Japan temblor made clear that the measures taken there to protect nuclear plants were insufficient - justifying a review of precautions elsewhere.
Merkel said she has already spoken with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, agreeing to bring up nuclear safety as a topic at the G-20 summit in France at the end of the month. Oettinger expected an EU summit next week would also focus on that issue.